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The Essential Steps to Flawless French Imperfect (L’Imparfait)

It’s time to look into a concept that will get you another step closer to sounding like a native French speaker – l’imparfait or the French imperfect tense.

We created a Quiz, which is at the end of this article, so that you can test your knowledge on French Imperfect Tense → OK, take me to the Quiz!

Even though this tense seems daunting, the French imperfect is widely used in conversations about the past. Humans have a habit of recounting past events with current companions, and the imperfect tense is perfect for that! This guide will get you comfortable using l’imparfait smoothly and help you on every step of your “imperfect” journey.

How does French imparfait compare to English imperfect?

There is no real correlation between l’imparfait and the English imperfect. They both correspond to was, would and used to. These are employed to discuss events that have happened and are no longer happening.

The formula for conjugation is to take the nous form of the verb, drop the -ons and add the imperfect suffix (check the table below).

Finir Imperfect Tense Conjugation Table

PronounEnding(Nous finissons)
je-aisfinissais
tu-aisfinissais
il/elle/on-aitfinissait
nous-ionsfinissions
vous-iezfinissiez
ils/elles-aientfinissaient

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Verbs ending with -cer take the cedilla accent if “c” falls before “a”: Il l’effaçait. (He was erasing it.)
  • Verbs ending with -ger adopt an “e” after the “g”: Il arrangeait les meubles. (He was arranging the furniture.)

French is known for having exceptions, and that includes the French imperfect. For example, the verb être has a unique root. Look at how it’s conjugated in the table below.

Être Imperfect Tense Conjugation Table
PronounEnding
j’étais
tuétais
il/elle/onétait
nousétions
vousétiez
ils/ellesétaient

 

Review these and a few other helpful French imperfect conjugations here:

The Basics of French Imperfect Tense Use

You may be aware of another branch of French past tense called the passé composé, which is often used alongside l’imparfait. So when do we use the French imperfect tense instead?

1. When talking about occurrences that don’t have a concrete narrative or start/end

Example:
Je montais l’échelle. (I was climbing the ladder.)

2. In harmony with the passé composé to start a scene before another action

Example:
Elle regardait la télévision quand sa grand-mère a appelé. (She was watching TV when her grandmother called.)

You can observe that the verb regarder is in imperfect tense and describes the setting when a second event, “sa grand-mère a appelé,” happens in the passé composé.

3. Events that happened routinely

Example:
Chaque jour je faisais du yoga. (Every day I would do yoga.)

Avoid Mistakes With These Perfectionist Tips

Since there is a fine line between passé composé and imperfect tense in French, it’s easy to misplace the two. When you are a beginner, it can be difficult to realize when to use which one. What can you do to avoid making simple mistakes?

1. Practice, practice, practice (especially listening)!

While you might be tired of listening practice, the trick to nailing the French imperfect is to do just that. No one can become an Olympic gold medalist without putting in the effort to train every single day. Luckily for you, there are so many components and variations in language that you never have to get bored practicing the same old routine.

2. Learn and study which words signal the French imperfect.

Another way to steer clear of mistakes is to keep a list of certain words that signal French imperfect tense. For example, tous les jours (every day) often has imperfect conjugation with it. Write all such phrases and words on a piece of paper and stick it somewhere you’ll see every day, like your mirror. Then you can groom both your body and mind at the same time!

Soon the French imperfect tense will feel second nature to you, and you’ll become a master weaver of past tales. For any other help and guidance, connect with our French tutors. See you next post!

Quiz: Test your knowledge of French Imperfect!

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French Imperfect Tense, The Essential Steps to Flawless French Imperfect (L’Imparfait)

French Imparfait

1 / 7

“Tu (as été / étais / être / es) excellent !” 

English: You were excellent!

2 / 7

Quand elle était adolescente, elle (détestaient / déteste / a detesté / détestait)  ses parents.

English: When she was a teenager, she hated her parents.

3 / 7

Avant, il (ira / va / allez / allait) à la salle de sport tous les jours.

English: Before, he used to go to the gym everyday.

4 / 7

How would you say ''He used to take the subway to work.'' ?

5 / 7

“Nous faisions peur aux gens.” means

6 / 7

“Je regardais la télévision quand quelqu’un cria.”

7 / 7

“Il allait au travail quand sa femme l’appela.”

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